Feb. 13, 2004
My Father's Lunch
Poem: "My Father's Lunch," by Erica Funkhouser, from Pursuit: Poems (Houghton Mifflin).
My Father's Lunch
he'd sit at the kitchen table
in khakis and a workshirt.
White napkin, a beer, the serrated knife.
Pieces of prosciutto or headcheese
or kippered herring
layered on slabs of black bread.
Outside, the ripe hayfields
or the stacks of shutters
or the forest needing to be cleared
or the snow needing to be pushed aside
lay still as they waited for him
to finish his lunch.
For now he was ours,
whether he smelled of chokecherry,
tractor oil, or twine.
He'd washed his hands
with brown naphtha soap
and splashed water onto his face
and shaken it off like a dog.
He'd offer more ham, more bread
to anyone who sat down.
This was work, too,
but he did it slowly, with no impatience,
not yet reminding the older boys
that he'd need them later
or asking the smaller children
if we'd stored the apples
or shoved last year's hay
out of the wonderful window
This was the interlude
of nearly translucent slices,
of leaning back in the smooth wooden chair
and wiping white foam from his lip
as the last beads of beer rose calmly
to the surface of the glass.
We could see it was an old meal
with the patina of dream
going back to the first days
of bread and meat and work.
All our lives, my brothers,
my sister, and I will eat
this same meal, savoring
its provisional peace,
like the peace in the grain room
after we'd scooped the grain
from the bins, and the sticky oats
and the agitated flakes of bran
had slipped back down into the soft valleys
where they would remain
until it was time to feed the animals again.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Georges Simenon, born in Liège, Belgium (1903). He's one of the most prolific writers of all time, best known for his detective novels featuring Inspector Maigret. He wrote over 400 books, which sold more than 1.4 billion copies from 1935 to 1997.
He quit school when he was sixteen to take care of his ailing mother, who died within the year. He then worked at a bakery and a bookstore before getting a job at the local newspaper. He published his first novel when he was just seventeen years old. He later said, "I wanted to be not just myself, so young and insignificant, but all people, those of the land and of the sea, the blacksmith, the gardener, the bricklayer, and all those to be found on the different rungs of the . . . social ladder."
Between 1923, he wrote more than 200 books of pulp fiction under various pseudonyms. He wrote spy stories, detective thrillers and romance novels, churning them out at a rate of at least ten pages per day. By the time he was 25, he was rich enough to have a chauffeur and own a yacht.
He wanted to write serious fiction too, and began submitting short stories to a literary magazine in Paris, but they were all rejected. One time, the writer Colette wrote him a note saying, "You are too literary. You must not be literary. Suppress all the literature and it will work." Simenon later said it was the most useful advice he'd ever gotten in his life.
He began traveling throughout Europe on his yacht, gathering materials for novels. In 1930, he published his first Inspector Maigret novel, The Strange Case of Peter the Lett. The book was so successful that he got a contract to write one Inspector Maigret novel a month, and Maigret has since become one of the most well known detectives in literature.
By the end of his career, Simenon was still writing four novels a year, each of which was published simultaneously in several different languages. He would get up at six every morning to take care of his correspondence with publishers all around the world before beginning to write. He would start out by naming his characters and giving them personalities and background stories, and then he would develop a story as he wrote. Each book took him on average eight days to write; when he was finished he would put it away for a few days, take it back out and quickly revise it, and send it off to his publishers.
When his hands became too sore to write anymore, Simenon began composing stories on tape recorders and having a secretary transcribe them. As an old man, he lived in a tiny one-room apartment with his wife, even though he had become rich from the sales of his novels.
Georges Simenon, "What you have not absorbed by the time you reach the age of eighteen you will never absorb. It is finished. You will be able to develop what you have absorbed. You will be able to make something or nothing at all of it, but your time for absorption is over and for the rest of your life you will be branded by your childhood."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®